13 MILES TO MARSHALL: Hard classes and difficult lessons for Albion teens (chapter 2)


Last spring, before the merger, Albion 11th-graders scored below the state average in all five subjects tested on the Michigan Merit Exam; Marshall was above average in all five. The percentage of students scoring at a proficient level or higher in social studies at Marshall was double the percentage at Albion; in writing, more than double.

The kids from Albion noticed the difference when they walked into Marshall classrooms in September. Homework that was optional and not graded at Albion was strictly enforced at their new school. There was less “hand holding” by teachers at Marshall, said sophomore Jontaj Wallace. Teachers told students what to do, and they expected them to do it.

“The classes aren’t noisy,” said De’Jhannique Straham. “Teachers aren’t stopping every two minutes to tell kids to be quiet.”

Albion senior Jerome Washington, who has two Marshall juniors tutoring him in algebra II and physics, noted that “The teachers here don’t play around. There aren’t a lot of students playing, either. They get their work done.”

Homework and noise, though, aren’t the root causes of the difference. A sobering reality of U.S. education is that academic success generally rises and falls with the size of a family’s paycheck. Albion 11th graders’ scores on the Michigan Merit Exam were typical for children who qualify for free or reduced lunch across the state (and significantly better in math and science).

Math teacher Kyle Young said he has had to hand out multiplication tables to Albion students during quizzes and tests in algebra II. “The accountability hadn’t been there,” Young said.

“Our Albion kids have more hurdles, whether it be academic or economic,” added 12th-grade English teacher Julie Smith. “Our rich Marshall kids I guarantee have more resources than our Albion kids. Why wouldn’t they have more success?”

Smith, an outgoing teacher who often stays after school to work with students, said she had to adjust her teaching style when she realized Albion students, assigned to writing a research paper, didn’t know what a parenthetical citation was. “They are perfectly capable with the right amount of support,” Smith said. “But they can’t know what they haven’t been taught.”

Graded homework and photocopied multiplication tables won’t change the fact that the Albion students come from low-income families. Will attending a higher-income, higher-academic school make a difference?

Absolutely, says Richard Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation in New York, who has written extensively on the economic integration of schools.

“There is 50 years of research to suggest that low-income students perform substantially better in middle-class rather than low-income schools,” Kahlenberg said. “For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a national, standardized test) in math, low-income fourth grade students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools.

“Higher-income schools tend to have college-going expectations and cultures, highly active parental groups, and strong teachers compared to high-poverty schools. While there is often an initial period of adjustment for low-income students,” Kahlenberg said, “the long-run benefits are undeniable.”

Smith has been teaching English for a decade at Marshall High, where all 47 classroom teachers are white in a building that is now about one-fifth minority. The district recently allowed a Bridge reporter to sit in on Smith’s class and talk with students and teachers at the school.

“Our rich Marshall kids I guarantee have more resources than our Albion kids. Why wouldn’t they have more success?” – Julie Smith, 12th grade English teacher, Marshall High

“I didn’t grow up in an environment like that,” Smith said of her new students from Albion. “Marshall is not like that. We’re trying to understand how they (Albion students) react to things.”

In one class early on, a shouting match erupted between Albion and Marshall students when an Albion student was playing music in the back of the room during a movie about Henry Ford. “I told him, ‘Are you flipping stupid? Turn off your music,’” recalled a Marshall student.

That incident, in the first week of school in September, hasn’t been repeated, the student said. Different schools, different expectations.

“You become what people expect of you,” Smith said.

A longer road

Both districts needed to change to survive, but among students, it is the kids from Albion who are changing the most. They’re getting up earlier in the morning and getting home later at night. They’ve given up their Wildcat T-shirts for the clothing of their former bitter rival Redhawks. None of their teachers came to Marshall (some are still unemployed). And while Marshall students have been overwhelmingly welcoming, the new school is sometimes seen through a different lens by Albion students.

De’Jhannique tells the story of a girl from Marshall dragging her personal laptop across a classroom floor, the computer banging into chairs and desks. De’Jhannique, whose mother gets up at 4:40 every morning to work as a manager of an Arby’s in Albion, shook her head. “I thought, holy cow, do you know what I’d give to have a laptop? I’d take care of it so well.”

There are 27 students in fifth period Advanced Placement English, with De’Jhannique the only African-American and only student from Albion – in fact, the only Albion student in any AP class at Marshall. She is struggling with the class, and has considered dropping it.

Many of the students have colorful binders for their homework assignments, a different color for each class. De’Jhannique has one binder – black, held together with duct tape.

One day when a Bridge reporter was present, students moved their desks into a circle to discuss the book they’re reading. It was a student-led discussion, with students making comments or asking questions, and then calling on another student to speak. Participation counts toward their grade.

De’Jhannique raised her hand to talk, holding it in the air for several minutes, but her name wasn’t called.

“Make sure everyone gets a chance,” reminded Smith, “not just the same ones.”

De’Jhannique raised her hand again, while her classmates called on friends they’d known for years. The class ended, with De’Jhannique one of the few students who didn’t speak.



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Tue, 03/25/2014 - 7:20pm
Shame in you Julie Smith! Not only did I graduate from Albion High School in the late 90s, but I went on to graduate Suma Cum Laude from a major university, and became an educator myself. I was taught the things you are claiming Albion kids haven't been taught- by many of the same teachers in fact. I am appalled that you speak about your students from Albion the way you do, and that you would let the class end without giving De'Jhannique the chance to speak. Had this happened when I was in high school I would have home schooled myself before I ever set foot in Marshall High School. One of the reasons being teachers like yourself. To those Albion students currently attending Marshall High School, keep your heads up and hands raised. Don't let Marshall tell you who you are or define you. You come from a long line of extremely successful people (doctors, lawyers, teachers, pilots, collegiate coaches, etc.) who came from the same types of situations you did.
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 5:13pm
You better be careful when talking about Mrs. Smith. You have NO idea how the student-run discussions work. It's called 'student-run' for a reason. She watches how they interact, and I know she'll talk to them about it. I was in her class, so I know how it works. She's a great teacher and kids learn so much in her class, from books and about life. You should be calling out the STUDENTS who wouldn't include everyone, not the teacher who's going to let them make mistakes, and then teach them from it.
Ron French
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 5:19pm
Hello Mackenzie, if you read the story, you'll note that I didn't "call out" Mrs. Smith, beyond describing that the scene occurred in her room. You'll note, if you read the story, that I quote Mrs. Smith urging students to call on all the students who raised their hands. Then you'll note that the students continued to not call on one student. It's quite clear in the article that Mrs. Smith was blameless. You are correct in one thing: Mrs. Smith is a great teacher. Thanks for reading.
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 10:51am
Mackenzie, As an educator, I do understand how student led discussions "work." In this case, however, it sounds like it wasn't working. Unfortunately, the lessons you are learning about life in her class are far different from those I learned in my K-12 years in Albion Public Schools.
Tue, 03/25/2014 - 9:28pm
AHS, 'Shame on you.' Why are you attacking someone for speaking her mind and frrom experience. You don't seem to consider that things may have changed since you graduated, 15 or so years ago. Are you questioning the test score differences? If not then maybe there is something to what is being said. I do understand the impact of expectations, my daughters spent most of their K-12 in a school district where high school graduation was not an expectation. We moved to a high school where the expectation was college. Much of what was describe in the article was similar to their experiences. The academic success of the kids was drastically different, the kids/community expectations were reflected in the the percentage of kids going on to college (low expectations low college admissions, high expectations high college acceptance). The expectations were owned by all (students, teachers, parents,community) and they did their parts to achieve those expectations. I do expect that as you suggest there were academic success from Albion High School, what we should be asking is how and why did they succeed when it appears others didn't. We can learn form those successes, just as we should be trying to learn from Marshall's success. I am especially appreciative of the students and teachers who were willing to speak so candidly so others could get a sense of what is happening in the mergering of schools/students.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 2:50am
I'm not attacking, I'm, "Speaking my mind from experience."
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 8:29pm
AHS, I must first apologize for using 'shame' when I responded to your comments. I did what I was challenging you not to do, that was wrong of me. I do feel strongly in not discouraging people to say what they honestly feel because without that openness problems and issues will only fester and prevent them from being addressed. You surely have the right to speak your mind, but trying to ‘shame’ the teacher sounds like it is directed at the personal rather than challenging what she had said. People are routinely attacked for saying what they see or think it shows courage for these students, teachers, administrators, and parents to speak openly with Mr. French and to see their words in print for all to read. They have each spoken about what they have experienced allowing others to gain a sense of what future such mergers may have to address. I apologize for my remarks, I am grateful for your willingness to respond to my comment.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 4:13pm
I am appalled by these articles and some of the comments I am reading! What I don't understand is why it is even still a matter of Albion High School and Marshall High School students, they are all attending the same school and held to the same standards so why not refer to them all as high school students. Also, why is it a matter of white and black? That should not matter at all. All of these students should be treated the same from the color of their skin to the amount of money their family makes. If one student needs more help then another as the staff of that school you need to help that student! This article seriously makes me sick. I am a recent graduate of Albion High School and no I may not of had the best test scores or received the "best" education according to some of you, but what I learned was something far more greater than any of that. What I learned from my time at Albion High School was to accept others for who they are. I don't see color or money when I look at someone I see a person. Maybe some of you "Marshall" students should start learning some of that information I bet it will come far more handy in life than Algebra II.
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 9:35am
Amen Kelly!!!! You are so right!!
Kelly's DAD
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 10:43am
Amen Kelly. Test scores do not measure resilience.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 7:18pm
I have a lesson for Julie Smith. If you are trying to figure out how THEY ( as you put it), the AHS students react to things, here's a clue: They are teenagers. They will react as teenagers! You should apply some of that fancy book learning or common sense and deceny may be applicable.
MHS Student
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 9:34pm
And I have a lesson for you Missy. Julie Smith or Mrs. Smith to me is one of the most kind caring teachers who would never even have those words come out of her mouth. There has never been a day good or bad where Mrs Smith wouldn't go out of her way to do anything for someone else. She comes in every morning, whether her morning was good or bad, ready to help us. She doesn't care who you are, where you're from, or what color skin you have because to her, we're all her little Cherubs. So don't go acting like you know Mrs. Smith because you did some "fancy article learning" because I'm sure if you asked any person at MHS what they thought about Mrs. Smith you would hear nothing but wonderful and positive things.
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 7:38pm
I agree with Kelly, I never got the best scores on tests when I went to AHS either but I did learn about diversity and not to judge others based on their race or income. I hope that the students from Marshall will one day be so lucky to learn a life lesson such as this.
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 6:47am
I really can't believe this article keeps referring to the white kids in Marshall as rich and the black students from Albion as poor. For one race shouldnt even b mentioned in this article i find to b extremely racist and im not even black..two, To be honest... Marshall residents are not rich according to the economic scale.. most are still considered poor, however, I will recognize there may be more middle class residents living in Marshall but that's still not rich. After reading this article I really feel like we honestly just took a leap back to the 30s-50s are you serious? Are the residents of marshall and the writer of this article really that racist? I'm quite disgusted. The difficulties of combining these 2 schools could have been described without mentioning white rich and black poor especially as much as it did. The writer should be ashamed and should be made to come out with a public apology! Whether or not the families are black or white doesn't mean they are poor or rich. They should have just stayed focused on the academic differences and left the economic out especially if its going to b exaggerated as much as it was.
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 9:39am
I so agree with you! This has gotten way out of hand and I hope Bridge is oh so happy!!!!
David Waymire
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 3:22am
Ignoring racial issues won't make them go away. And the socioeconomic differences between the two towns are great.
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 2:43pm
When referring to the "rich white marshall students" and "the poor black albion students" one is being highly racist! Other words could have been used one being lower middle class in reference to Albion but not because the students or residents are black. In which case once again as I stated Marshall may have more middle class residents due to the hospital but not everyone from Albion are poor and not everyone in Marshall are rich or even middle class, But I'm starting to see ignorance runs high.
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 3:16pm
This report is a racial issue. I honestly don't believe neither the Marshall students nor the Albion students had issues with race. Being that white and blacks have been getting along for years now. Its articles and people like that who are trying to bring racism back trying to make issues amongst races. If the writer wanted to talk about socioeconomic differences he could have without stating the racial differences. If Albion was all white the town would still be lower middle class or poor regardless due to the factories leaving and the hospital leaving. Race had nothing to do with that.
been around
Sat, 03/29/2014 - 4:16pm
"The classes aren't noisy. The teachers aren't stopping every two minutes to tell kids to be quiet." This in a nutshell is why the students from Albion will be able to achieve academically at Marshall whereas most of them did not at AHS. A safe, disciplined, and orderly environment is the first requirement for learning to take place for every human being, regardless of their skin color. This type of environment did not exist at AHS. I approve of the merger of the two schools because it will help the students, who are supposed to be our primary concern, right? Whether it is multiplication tables or a "parenthetical citation" (whatever that is) students cannot learn in a disruptive atmosphere. By the way, multiplication tables are supposed to be memorized in the 3rd grade, so perhaps some elementary teachers/schools need some rise in expectations, too.
mike lopez
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 6:09am
None of theses comments offend me personally. I graduated AHS in 2000 and I have always known Marshall felt this way about Albion. These feelings/comments are nothing new! Marshall has always been stuck up ass white people who think they are better than us here in Albion. I can't wait until some of your "poor black kids" starting tagging some of those "rich white kids" in Marshall! I hope some of your "rich white kids" start dating and spending time with the "poor black kids" that will be a much harder slap in the face then I could ever do for Marshall! Albion is a big ghetto. Albion schools do and have SUCKED for sometime! The city of Albion is going down hill. I'm not shocked 1 bit! I feel sorry for Albion kids! I won't send my kids to Albion schools! Yes I live in albion . Sorry!
been around
Wed, 04/02/2014 - 7:54pm
Mike, Your extremely negative comments about Albion and the generally hysterical tone of your post will undoubtedly give people in Marshall more reasons to think they are better than you. Stereotyping people is never helpful if we truly desire to reach common ground. The black community in Albion is no more monolithic than the white community in Marshall. I hope the students of Marshall High will respect and interact with each other as individuals, regardless of their hometown, and choose to ignore anyone that tries to label them as one thing or another.
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 10:04pm
Wow, these comments really opened my eyes to the strong emotions around this. The economic and cultural differences where even pointed out by the Albion Superintendent in Chapter 1 of the article so it doesn't seem reasonable to challenge others as being racist for recognizing the same situation. We can come to terms with it and move forward or go back to the failing environment the kids had. We owe them the best chance they have for success.